Le Virtu Gets Two Bells

Le Virtu
Craig LaBan is a sucker for couples who own restaurants and he finds another favorite twosome in this week’s review of Le Virtu on East Passyunk.

If you’ve eaten at handsome Le Virtu in South Philadelphia, you’ll realize that Francis Cratil and his wife, Catherine Lee, are among the lucky few. And if you’ve had a chance to savor the homespun Abruzzese pastas topped with lamb and duck ragus, or to nibble on deep-fried olives stuffed with braised meat, then you’ll know we’re the lucky ones, too. Because Le Virtu is not simply one of the most pleasant new restaurants I’ve visited this year; it adds yet another layer of authenticity to our already rich and growing Italian scene.

Le Virtu [Philadelphia Inquirer]
Le Virtu [Official Site]

Azie In Media

Craig LaBan checks out the sexy Azie in downtown Media and finds it wanting.

Where is the restaurant that will finally put Media on the map as the next budding West Chester, Collingswood or Manayunk? By all logic, it should be Azie. This newcomer is such a stunningly designed contemporary space, and has such a pedigreed kitchen – “one of the world’s greatest Japanese chefs,” according to the press release – I wasn’t a bit surprised when the glowing propaganda started sizzling in my e-mail box.

But logic, I’ve since been reminded by a couple of less than stellar dinners here, doesn’t do the cooking.

One Bell – Hit or Miss

Azie [Philadelphia Inquirer]
Azie [Official Site]

Yeah Beer!

Standard Tap Menu
Craig LaBan takes a look at Philadelphia’s rich beer culture in his Sunday Inquirer writeup.

“Philly really is a great beer town,” says Vinnie Cilurzo of the widely respected Russian River Brewing Co. in Sonoma County, Calif. His much sought-after barrel-aged Belgian-style brews, such as Pliny the Elder, are available only in California and Philadelphia.

“Having our beers available at Monk’s was a really big deal,” he said, putting them in one of the foremost Belgian bars in America.

A toast to a city of brews [Philadelphia Inquirer]

Apamate Gets 2 Bells

Craig LaBan puts G-Ho’s Apamate in his sights and he likes what he sees.

The service is still frustratingly inconsistent (our Saturday dinner waitress was fabulous, our brunch waiter so uninterested he was almost rude). The erratic hours have smartly been pared back to focus on dinner and brunch. But more important, the self-taught Ormaechea, who previously worked as a server at Cibucan, is cooking with self-assured inspiration that should make this underappreciated spot a destination – if it can get the service in gear.

Her homemade chorizo lends an earthy backbone to a tiny red crock of chickpea stew. Caramellos de morcilla, inspired by a meal in Asturias, bring crispy bonbon-shaped dumplings filled with blood sausage, apples and sage.

Two Bells – Very Good

Cafe Apamate [Philadelphia Inquirer]
Cafe Apamate [Official Site]

Three Bells For Supper

Soup at Supper
Craig LaBan pours the praise on for Supper, the South Street, small plates restaurant that he calls “one of the most exciting restaurants” he’s reviewed in the last six months.

When Supper’s menu advertises a “short rib,” you’re really going to get a short one.

But my goodness, that piece of meat melts in a way I haven’t experienced in a while. It’s the result of more than 36 hours of slow poaching, finished with a glaze of grainy mustard sparking against the earthy sweet-and-sour of a bitter chocolate and raisin sauce. Sided with tender baby turnips, carrots and brussels sprouts, I can see why it costs $19.

Lavishing that kind of attention on quality ingredients, spinning them with detail into inventive combinations, is the ultimate justification for these prices. And Supper, thanks to chef Mitch and his talented chef de cuisine Brinn Sinnott (ex-Lacroix), delivers at a high level with admirable consistency.

Three Bells – Excellent

Supper’s on – really on [Philadelphia Inquirer]
Supper [Official Site]

Reserve a table at Supper.

LaBan Reviews Las Bugambilias

Carlos Molina who was a longtime chef at Tequila’s now has his own place, Las Bugambilias on South Street. Craig LaBan visits and approves the authentic flavors and polished decor.

Other classic starters rose on the freshness of ingredients and a respect for simplicity. The guacamole was addictively chunky and lightly seasoned. The seviche mixto filled a glass cup of lime- and wine-splashed tomato juice with perfectly tender shrimp, flounder and crab.

Molina’s strong suit at Los Catrines/Tequila’s was always meat, and he delivers some memorable entrees here, including a tender “medallon del rancho,” a filet with poblano cream over pumpkin blossoms, and another filet special that came over an ebony dark sauce of pureed dry chiles that was mysteriously complex and addictively spicy. The skirt steak “tampiqueña,” wrapped around a Chihuahua cheese-stuffed poblano pepper, was a bit complicated texturally for its own good, but the cheese-meat-chile trio sang in warm harmony.

Two Bells – Very Good

Las Bugambilias [Philadelphia Inquirer]

Chatting with LaBan

We missed a week of rounding up of Craig LaBan’s Tuesday chat, but we’re back with the highlights.

Despite his best efforts to coax the proletariat into a discussion of Mardi Gras and the lack of Creole delights to be found in Philadelphia, the chatters had other ideas: Osteria, sushi buffets and Philly Mag’s list of 50 best restaurants.

In response to those who dared to question the primacy of Osteria, we have a deft slap in the face to the haters from La LaBan:

As everyone knows, I’ve been a big fan of Marc Vetri’s and Osteria. And you can see my review for the reasons in detail. That said, I recieve a surprising amount of mail from people like you, who simply don’t get Osteria. I don’t know you, Meghan, but I don’t get those people. Yes, Osteria is expensive, and the portions are on the small side, but it is such a refreshing expression of authentic and rustic Italian flavors in an accessible space – we simply didn’t have anything like it here before. It is quite a different experience from the red gravy palaces of yore, and maybe that’s jarring. Or maybe the build up has been too great.

Take note, easily-jarred Osteria-haters! You have felt his wrath! Fortunately, we’re fans of the Broad Street pizza place, so we’re still able to bask in the benevolent warmth of the big guy.

The real news here might be that the chatters convinced him to visit suburban sushi buffet Minado. We’ve been and it’s certainly an experience.

Dinner Conversations [philly.com]

Ted’s On Main

Ted’s On Main
Craig LaBan can be a demanding reviewer but never more so than when the topic is Louisiana cuisine. So it speaks volumes when he finds a place he likes. And he has found such a spot in Medford New Jersey’s Ted’s on Main. That’s not to say he didn’t have any complaints.

But those were exceptions for a restaurant that consistently delivered entrees worthy of prices in the mid-$20s, making Ted’s easily one of South Jersey’s best new restaurants. You’d never suspect it from the low-key storefront exterior, the former Cafe Noelle, where Iwachiw hangs a cartoony chef sign that looks more like something for the front of a pizzeria.

Two Bells – Very Good

Ted’s on Main [Philadelphia Inquirer]
Ted’s On Main [Official Site]

St. Stephens Green

St. Stephens Green’s chef, Ben McNamara certainly has a fan in Craig LaBan. LaBan gushes about McNamara who he calls, “one of the most consistent cooks I’ve covered over the last decade.”

Longtime McNamara-lytes will recognize all of the chef’s old favorites, reflecting a blend of his classic European style with some of his bar-food updates.

There are his delicate risotto crabcakes, with sweet lumps of crustacean molded into pillows of rice, set over basil butter sauce. Toothsome homemade gnocchi come in porcini cream. And then, there is the chicken cheesesteak, an open-faced baguette toasted with brie, then piled high with tenderly braised poultry, oyster mushrooms and shallots.

2 Bells – Very Good

St. Stephens Green [Philadelphia Inquirer]

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